For many years, I thought deep tissue massage was simply pushing harder. That seemed to appease most of my deep tissue clients and the managers or spa owners who ran the spas where I was employed.
They’d say "Yeah, just PUSH HARDER and give more pressure” when I’d wonder why a client wasn’t happy with the deep tissue massage I’d just given them.
As I grew in my career and got more education, I learned that deep tissue massage is NOT deep PRESSURE massage. I can work deeply in to your muscles and soft tissues without using deep pressure just by slowing down my work and heating up the area first, either with my hands, feet, or hot pack.
The problem with continuing this idea of "just push harder” is that it's counter productive. The harder you push, the harder the muscles push back. Muscle guarding, as it's called is a signal from the muscle that it has had enough. It won't let you continue to force pressure without injury to the tissue. If you’ve ever heard of someone complain that they were so sore from their massage, this is probably the cause. Honestly, nobody wants to feel MORE pain from the massage than what they originally came in with.
Many therapist retire early from overdoing it on the pressure. Injuring and breaking down their own bodies in the process of trying to help and assist healing for their clients. This simply doesn't have to be the case.
Of course, I don't have anything against deep pressure. Here in Dallas, Texas Ashiatsu is king. It's deep BY DESIGN and can't be given as light touch. I use it by standing on my sturdy table and using the force of gravity + weight just makes that deep pressure happen effortlessly.
What I don't like is the misguided notion that deep pressure = pain and those silly sayings like " pain is weakness leaving the body." Or "no pain, no gain."
Pain is a signal from your body telling you to stop, slow down, and take notice. Those ideas that pain is weakness have no place in massage therapy or fitness for that matter. Many of my clients have chronic pain from a sports or fitness related injury and this tells me that we need to cultivate body awareness.
In my practice, communication between client and therapist is crucial. I can usually tell from muscle guarding or body language when I've reached the client's pain tolerance.....but not always. Sometimes muscles don't react or it's too subtle to notice. Also, some medications clients maybe taking can block this conversation between myself and the tissues. That is why my clients use a subjective pain scale to alert me to any discomfort ( 1-10- 1 being no pain and 10 being excruciating pain.) If the pressure or pain goes past a 6 on their scale, they let me know and my work changes to accommodate them. It keeps everyone happy and comfortable throughout the session.
Deep Pressure: is exerting more pressure or force. It should have skill behind it but many times it doesn't, especially if the therapist doesn't have good training. If it's done right, it's AHHHmazing! If it's done wrong it's painful and dangerous to soft tissue. It can have some emotional side effects as well inciting panic and fear in a client. Done correctly, deep pressure can actually relax the nervous system.
Deep Tissue massage:
According to leading deep tissue massage instructor, Art Riggs, Is simply using techniques to access deeper muscular structures. Any technique will do but most often the therapist uses myofacial release, trigger point therapy, friction, compression, traction, heat and more. Along with expert palpation skills to locate the specific muscle that needs the work. Sometimes you (on the client's end) will FEEL the depth of the pressure and other times you won't. It all depends on the technique being used. Some deep work is done very gently.
Therapists...It's important to get training and learn a pressure intensive style thought the proper channels. I love pressure and compression, giving it and receiving it. I choose to study with THE BEST ashiatsu trainers and instructors. My favorites are the people over at Center for Barefoot Massage and Lolita knight’s Fijian Massage.
Do you enjoy deep pressure?
Have you ever left a massage feeling more pain than you came in with?
Hi! I’m Hillary Arrieta and I help people improve their lives by offering holistic solutions to ease stress, eliminate pain, and inspire self care practices. I own The Heeling Hut in Plano, TX. Where I teach workshops, write, and specialize in unique and effective massage and meditation techniques such as Ashiatsu Barefoot Massage and iRest® Yoga Nidra. At The Heeling Hut you'll find the best massage in the Dallas area for pain and stress management. Texas MT 040051
8/3/2013 08:53:43 am
Beautifully written. Couldn't agree more. I wish all practitioners understood this philosophy. In our school, our mantra is "if it hurts, you're doing something wrong".
12/22/2014 08:16:26 am
Thanks for your comment. I like that mantra!
9/14/2013 12:08:46 am
I agree with the previous comment, this is beautifully written! We were also told in school that massage should never hurt. During our 1st day of deep tissue massage my partner worked on me so long and so deeply that I did infact go into a panic. I couldn't stop crying and felt really sick. It took me a few classes to become comfortable with someone touching me again. On the bright side of that awful situation, I will now have an even more sensitive approach when it comes time for me to have my own clients.
12/22/2014 08:18:04 am
Diana, I'm sorry you had that experience! Being in the client's position can teach us a lot!
1/5/2014 07:53:53 pm
Very well said. I think the more experienced a therapist you become the more you realize this. The deeper you go, the slower you go. When too much force is used too much and too fast the muscle becomes numb. So yes the person may temporarily feel better because they no longer feel anything, soon after the muscle is going to come back to with a vengeance.
12/22/2014 08:19:38 am
Yes! The muscle knows what it needs and it takes a skill developed through practice and time to read its reactions and figure out its needs for pressure.
1/17/2015 01:21:33 pm
I love this differentiation. Thanks so much for the clarity
2/3/2015 11:18:36 am
This was a great read and wonderfully written! I have clients often tell me,--they need deeeeep tissue --deeper the better, when often times, they have no idea that just because I'm not causing them actual pain --I am in fact going very deeply. Its by going as you described -thru warming the tissue, slowly...!! Thanks for the read!!
Technically, isn't a 6 still painful? Adhesed, dysfunctional tissue causes pain, so it's going to hurt when pressure is applied. In my experience, it's not the level of pain perceived but whether or not it changes quickly. Always work with caution but don't be afraid to create real, lasting change.
Hi Cath, thanks for the comment. Yes! A six is described as "therapeutic pain". The type of pain that is beneficial.
4/1/2016 11:46:59 am
The client's perception of pressure follows a continuum from comfort through discomfort to pain. The boundaries between these are fluid and move from client to client and most importantly, within a session. I use a combination of verbal client feedback and tracking skills to determine where on that continuum I am working at any given time. Neither alone is sufficient since a client may say the pressure is fine when their body indicates otherwise. If a client habitually verbalizes contrary to tracking signs and either will or can not reconcile the two, then I have to refer them out.
7/29/2015 01:52:50 am
I've been a massage therapist for over 10 years, and I have always had a heavy touch. I accommodate my clients when they ask for A LOT of pressure. Then, I say, wow, your muscles are not letting me in, let me try a different approach. I then use muscle warming, etc. I use the analogy that you can't go to your neighbors and demand sugar, you have to politely knock on the door and ask to be let in. So many times, clients believe that more is better, some cases, that's true. But more times than not, less is more!
5/30/2016 05:45:03 pm
I love this article. I am a fairly new therapist (6 months out of school). I work for a chiropractor and many of the massage clients have been programmed to the , " no pain no gain" theory. I'm killing my own body by constantly trying to give more pressure. Perhaps I need to slow down and that will help them feel more pressure? Any feedback is welcomed.
Elequently written. Fully agree, this is how I run my practice too. I always inform my clients to keep up a dialogue throughout out their treatment and let me know if the pain is ok. They say but the sorer it is the better, must mean it's working! This is where I re-educate them that in fact no it should not be too painful, yes at certain points it may be uncomfortable but never should you be laying there gritting your teeth and barring it. In fact not letting me know the level of pain you feel will actually prevent you from getting the best results from the session. If muscles are pushed too hard the nervous system reacts and tenses up all the deep muscles to protect you from pain, which means i cant get in to work on the muscles that need treated.
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Dallas Massage Blog is a written journal about Massage Therapy, Wellness, and Ashiatsu Barefoot Massage in the Dallas, Texas area.